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February 17, 2016 Dialogue

IOLTA: From the Chair

By Hon. James S. Hill, Commission on Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts

The Winter 2016 IOLTA Workshops took place on February 4-5, 2016 in San Diego amid an atmosphere of excitement and optimism, coming on the heels of some good news. On December 16, 2015, the Federal Reserve announced its decision to raise the target range for the federal funds rate for the first time since 2008 (from 0-0.25% to 0.25-0.50%), marking the end of a long and difficult era for the IOLTA community. In addition, congressional action near the end of 2015 enabled the continued infusion of bank settlement funds to IOLTA programs for the provision of foreclosure prevention and community redevelopment legal services.

Jointly sponsored and produced by the ABA Commission on IOLTA (Commission) and the National Program of IOLTA Programs (NAIP), this year’s Winter Workshops were exceptionally topical and instructive. In particular, sessions that focused on proactive strategies programs can employ to capitalize on a rising interest rate environment, how programs can advance technology in their civil legal aid systems, the role of legal services in community redevelopment, and the legal futurism movement highlighted our community’s forward-thinking mindset and renewed enthusiasm for the future.

Regardless of recent positive events, experience has shown that healthy IOLTA programs must prepare for the worst even as they continue to hope for the best. Among other things, this may mean creating and fostering alternate revenue sources (such as private fundraising or cy pres awards) and/or implementing practices that enable programs and grantees to work more efficiently.

Several sessions during the Winter Workshops successfully addressed these types of strategies as well. For example, a follow-up session to last summer’s business process improvement (BPI) workshop featured speakers from Illinois and Minnesota discussing how they have applied BPI techniques to increase efficiency in the funding and delivery of legal services in their states. In addition, the always popular “Let’s Talk” breakouts allowed staff and trustees from programs with similarly sized budgets to discuss topics of common concern, while the “Speed Dating” table discussions enabled attendees to engage in targeted conversations regarding banking, grant-making, social media, and other current issues.

After the conclusion of the Winter Workshops, the Commission conducted its business meeting, which was quite productive and featured informative updates from representatives of the Legal Services Corporation, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Access to Justice Initiatives, and NAIP. Prior to this meeting, the Commission had met in Minneapolis on October 31, 2015, where we hosted a lunch including representatives from the Minnesota Supreme Court, the Minnesota Interest on Lawyer Trust Account Program, the Minnesota State Bar Association, and the state’s Access to Justice Committee. The Commission enjoyed hearing from our guests regarding IOLTA/access to justice priorities and developments in Minnesota, including: coordinating with the courts to provide self-help and law library programs in the state; using technology to support an integrated statewide system; and conducting a “train-the-trainer” session on BPI involving representatives from all of the major statewide legal aid programs.

As we reflect on the road the IOLTA community has traveled since 2008 and acknowledge the unpredictable path interest rates may take in the future, we may take comfort in knowing one thing for certain—that the Commission and NAIP will continue to provide high-quality workshops to help guide IOLTA programs through it all, during times both lean and robust.